Gore, WSFS, others embrace trend towards happy workplace culture

By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times

For some, the workplace is a daily grind. For others, it’s a place where fresh ideas are welcomed, on-site downtime is encouraged and community service is a valued corporate tenet. Creating a happy work environment requires more than the occasional high-five for a job well done. The happiness factor is more multifaceted and includes both tangible and intangible rewards.

Technology has made ours a 24/7 world. We work online from home after a busy day at the office and respond to emergencies via cellphone or e-mail. Moreover, corporate downsizing means more work on the shoulders of fewer people.

In spite of all this, some employers are enhancing the workday experience by embracing a lighter-hearted environment.

By creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and peppering it with activities, celebrations, and plain old fun, employers are finding that staff is more productive, more engaged, and feels more valued. Another benefit to this growing mindset: less time and money spent on recruitment and training and an increase in the bottom line.

“There is very definitely a trend happening in the work force. I call it a revolution … [Employers] are recognizing that people are human beings and spend a vast amount of time at work. The traditional hierarchy doesn’t work anymore,” said Nick Gianoulis, founder and partner at the Fun Dept. in Wilmington.

Nick Gianoulis, founder and partner, the Fun Dept.
Nick Gianoulis, founder and partner, the Fun Dept.

FUNdamental truths

Human resource associations including World at Work and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) are singing the benefits of encouraging a happy work force. And media giants like Fortune magazine and Gallup are quantifying the results.

“Among companies denoted as ‘great’ in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” a whopping 81 percent of employees say they work in a fun environment,” said Nat Measley, CEO and managing partner of The Fun Dept.

A constant on that list since its inception 18 years ago: W.L. Gore & Associates, headquartered in Newark. At number 17, the company raised its bar placing five points higher over the previous year.

“We are extremely proud to earn continuous recognition as one of America’s best workplaces as well as recognition on similar lists around the world. Since our company’s founding in 1958, we have worked to cultivate an environment where our Associates feel passionate about the work they do and empowered to make a difference,” said Marcie Lee, who leads Gore’s culture initiative.

“For a lot of companies today, the key to their success is culture investment and how to incorporate initiatives to grow their culture,” said Cindy Crompton-Barone, past president of the Delaware chapter of SHRM.

World at Work echoes these sentiments. “As total rewards professionals, our members continue to embrace a culture of wellbeing that’s not only the right thing to do, but also good for business. Employee wellbeing programs allow employers to look beyond employees’ mere physical health and create a head-to-toe wellbeing strategy that touches the emotional, mental, spiritual and financial health of today’s workforce,” World at Work President and CEO Anne Ruddy writes in a press release.

A number of Delaware businesses are embracing this philosophy by teaming up with funnymen Gianoulis and Measley and implementing programs or activities that inject a dose of levity to the day’s workload. From money-earning trivia games to oven mitt Olympic challenges, The Fun Dept. brings in its bag of tricks, rejuvinates employees, and, like the mischievous Cat in the Hat, is gone in a flash.

“Eighty percent of what we do is with two people (from The Fun Dept.) and takes 15 to 30 minutes,” said Gianoulis, who sees his company’s role as a part of a larger toolbox. He adds that inclusion of a fun diversion cannot be viewed as a quick fix if a company doesn’t already provide a positive, reaffirming climate.

W.L. Gore is among the growing list of The Fun Dept. clients. “We view team-building activities not only as a chance to have fun together, but to strengthen connections and learn new things about each other so we can work together more effectively,” Lee said.

The Fun Dept. offers clients several tiers of services from site visits to longer-term consulting. With clients now numbering in the hundreds during its ten-year history, Gianoulis and Measley are expanding their presence by offering training workshops. Moreover, their book, “Playing it Forward,” was published in the spring.

Nat Measley (right) uses techniques from the Fun Dept. to teach lesson to WSFS team workers Linda Fonda (left) Ajah Web and Anthony Branda.
Nat Measley (right) uses techniques from the Fun Dept. to teach lesson to WSFS team workers Linda Fonda (left) Ajah Web and Anthony Branda.

Don’t worry, be happy

Bankers and accountants are often stereotyped as stodgy stick-in-the-muds. Surprise, surprise! The label couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to WSFS or Belfint, Lyons, & Shuman CPAs. The two workplaces are respectively representative of a mid-sized company – WSFS, headquartered in Wilmington, employs approximately 900 – and a small company – 66 at BLS in Wilmington – where management has embraced a workplace culture that includes fun. The Delaware Business Times also interviewed the larger Christiana Care Health System, with 11,000 employees, to assess its workplace culture.

WSFS placed third last year as a large company on The News Journal’s Top Workplaces survey, and has ranked within the top five companies for nine years in a row. The bank credits its workplace culture for having played a significant role in fostering growth during the recession. Prior to 2009, there were 10 other financial institutions in their footprint. Following the recession, just three remained. Since the recession, employment has grown by 50 percent across the bank’s now 40 branches. Prioritizing culture is rooted in the bank’s 183-year history, said Peggy Eddens, executive vice president and chief human capital officer, adding, the bank was established with a call to serve the common man with humility. However, a truly focused approach began just over a decade ago. Work on engagement on the associate side began in earnest in 2003, and on the customer side in 2005.

Eddens added that practices that value the employee have a trickle-down effect, as a happy employee extends a higher level of commitment to the customer. Moreover, employee engagement on the job has a lingering effect long past the physical workday.

“When you leave work feeling depleted, the community is depleted,” she said, referring to one’s ability to help a child with homework or coach a little league team.

WSFS has had a partnership with The Fun Dept. for years, but also has some internally developed activities and practices to lighten and brighten the day. A neon green mascot named Jurdy adds whimsy to bank memos and, in its stuffed animal form, accompanies employees on vacations and to events where it manages to steal the limelight in photographs. Simple gestures, like the simultaneous ringing of a bell across all locations, acknowledge a reason to pause and celebrate an accomplishment.

Can adding fun into the workplace go too far? No, said Eddens, not when there’s some reflection. “Underpinning the culture are the core values of the company. [Our] four values are what drives the culture climate,” she said.

At BLS, employees share in the decision making process. “We have a liaison group. Anyone under management level is able to participate. It has a board that discusses policy change, charity events, and fun,” said Jenni Fleck Jones, marketing manager and college recruiter. The Fun Dept., she said, has offered much-needed stress reduction during tax season. Other fun activities have included pumpkin decorating contests, held during another important accounting deadline, and the doling out of lottery tickets on all Friday the 13ths.

A positive workplace culture isn’t just about fun and games. Personal wellness at Christiana Care is an integral part of the fabric. Staffs housed within the Newark and Wilmington campuses enjoy an onsite gym.

“One of our strategic aims is optimal health. We take care of our own employees, and we have fun while taking care of self,” said Audrey Van Luven, senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

In order to feel valued, employees must also feel connected to an organization’s hierarchy. At Christiana Care a program called Walk with the President offers a chance for exercise while casually conversing with the system’s CEO.

While workplace culture seems like a 21st century benefits add-on, the notion of happiness is a universal and timeless one, and the companies the Delaware Business Times spoke with have 400 years of combined roots embedded in Delaware. Concluded Eddens: “At the base of all of us is an inherent desire to be happy.”

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